CHICAGO -- Cubs fans can let their imaginations run wild.
Theo Epstein and his deep front office sweat the small stuff, and they are provided the resources to sign the biggest free agents. Epstein operates with transparency on a general level, as he's open about what's on his mind without disclosing information about ongoing negotiations.
At the start of this offseason, Epstein talked for the first time about being open to trading from his inventory of young position players and later added an intriguing tidbit by saying he manages the payroll so he can add a big free-agent arm "every three years.''
Hmmm. Jonathan Lester just finished his third year with the Cubs ...
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The Cubs have been one of baseball's busiest teams this winter, but their biggest move had an under-the-radar quality to it. They believe Tyler Chatwood can become a major contributor in their rotation, even though he brings a 40-46 career record and 4.31 ERA to Chicago.
Here are some storylines that could have the Cubs Convention buzzing this weekend:
1. Yu Darvish signs a contract
Epstein entered the offseason hoping to add a big rotation arm (or two) to replace Jacob Arrieta and John Lackey, who filed for free agency. He coveted Shohei Ohtani and believed the Cubs had a good shot at landing him, and he has consistently pursued Darvish while staying in touch with agent Scott Boras regarding Arrieta.
Some doubt Darvish will pick a cold-weather team in the Midwest, but the Twins -- and to a lesser degree, the Brewers (who play indoors in the spring at Miller Park) -- are joining the Cubs in the pursuit of Darvish. It's unclear where talks stand with Darvish, but it's been more than three weeks since Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer met with him in Dallas. It's time to start getting answers.
2. The Cubs and A's make a trade for Sean Manaea
Manaea? You haven't heard that name, have you? This is pure speculation, to be clear. The point is that the Cubs explore every possibility, as we saw with reports that Chicago seriously pursued young San Diego starters Luis Perdomo and Dinelson Lamet at the Winter Meetings.
Manaea is the kind of young starter who could prompt the Cubs to use their roster redundancy (Benjamin Zobrist/Ian Happ, Addison Russell/Javier Baez, Albert Almora Jr./Happ) to acquire. A trade for a high-end arm not currently generating speculation is probably more likely than the ones that have been talked about all winter -- ones for Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Gerrit Cole, etc.
Of course, the Cubs have an interesting arm of their own -- lefty Mike Montgomery -- in that category. They just have to decide how they want to use him. He's coming into his age-28 season with two years' service time, and he wants to be used as a full-time starter after finishing almost as many games (11) as he started last season (14).
Montgomery could be used as a piece in a trade if the Cubs add a starter (and bump him from the fifth starter's job). Chicago could continue to use him as a swing man, but it has added left-handed bullpen options Dario Alvarez and Randy Rosario, seemingly making the man who got the final out in Game 7 expendable.
3. The Cubs and Marlins make a trade for Christian Yelich
Manager Joe Maddon and Epstein have consistently downplayed the need for a true leadoff man, but Yelich's ability to get on base is noteworthy. He's played 643 games over five seasons, and he's never had a season on-base percentage below .362. He'd be a great option in front of Kristopher Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Benjamin Zobrist, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber.
The Cubs certainly have the pieces to pull off a trade for Yelich. One question evaluators have is whether Yelich can remain in center field, where he played last season. He looks fine there, but the defensive metrics say he's been better in left field.
4. Alex Cobb signs a contract
The Cubs have been mentioned strongly with Cobb throughout the offseason. He played for Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey with Tampa Bay, and he threw almost 180 innings last year in his first season back from Tommy John surgery.
Cobb was somewhat different after his surgery. His velocity returned (92-mph sinkers), but he wasn't able to rely on his splitter like he had through 2014. He threw his curveball more often than the splitter, and it was more effective than before his surgery. Cobb is entering his age-30 season, and he battled injuries throughout his stay in Tampa Bay. He's been a tough call for teams, but he could feel comfortable with the Cubs. He would benefit from a change of leagues, as Lester and Lackey did.
5. Arrieta re-signs
The longer Arrieta stays unsigned, the chances increase that he'll return to the Cubs. With Arrieta heading into his age-32 season, the Cubs haven't been keen on a seven-year contract like other aces have received, but they have financial flexibility to make a creative, front-loaded deal that gives Arrieta an opt-out or other advantages.
6. One-stop shopping
Is there a trade out there that would bring arms both for the rotation and the back of the bullpen? A monster Rays deal could do that. Ditto to a mega-deal with the Blue Jays (who seem to have no interest in dealing Marcus Stroman). But Epstein has found it tough enough to trade for another controllable starter, let alone a starter and closer in the same trade.
7. Pats on the back for a solid offseason
With Chatwood and Brandon Morrow aboard, the Cubs have a deep enough pitching staff to head to Spring Training without any other major acquisitions. Epstein and Hoyer have done good work in mid-season trades -- first as sellers and most recently as buyers (Albertin Chapman, Jose Quintana). They can afford to take a patient approach as they head toward the 2018 season -- and toward the array of acquisition possibilities that will present themselves throughout the year.